We Grown Now Review | Arrested Development

by Andrew Parker

Minhal Baig’s We Grown Now is an earnest, well intentioned, heartfelt look at growing up black and poor in early 1990s Chicago, but it’s also flawed and curiously inauthentic. It’s a film that certainly looks the part and pours a lot of effort into re-creating settings that no longer exist today and boasts natural leading performances from some incredibly talented young actors, but We Grown Now also features a lot of forced poignancy when a more delicate and restrained touch would’ve pushed the material further. It’s the kind of film where one can appreciate the passion that went into it, but something still doesn’t sit quite right.

Set in 1992 in the well known Cabrini-Green housing developments of Chicago (the last of which were demolished in 2011), We Grown Now depicts the life and friendship of Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), two average, fun loving kids and lifelong best friends. They’re good kids with big hearts, and the worst thing they do – in the eyes of their parents – are snatching used mattresses to pull into the courtyard so they can have stylized jumping competitions. Malik lives with his struggling single mom, Dolores (Jurnee Smollett), grandmother, Anita (S. Epatha Merkerson), and younger sister, while Eric’s stern father (Lil Rel Howery, nicely working against type here) strives to teach his kid the nature of responsibility and what it takes to live a good life. Malik and Eric’s friendship reaches a major crossroads, however, when a shooting – based in part on a real life tragedy – and increasingly repressive living conditions causes Dolores to consider moving out of the neighbourhood.

On a visual level, what Chicago native Baig (Hala) has achieved with We Grown Now is quite impressive. The recreation of a 1990s era housing project and the struggles of a marginalized class of people are vividly captured through some impressive, ambitious cinematography from Pat Scola, finely detailed production design elements, and a lush (occasionally omnipresent) musical score from Jay Wadley. We Grown Now certainly looks the part, and young performers James and Ramirez are perfect, naturalistic guides through this world. Baig lets the kids simply be themselves for the most part, and whenever We Grown Now takes the shape of a slice-of-life drama about growing up, the filmmaker mostly succeeds. Smollett and Merkerson also merit special consideration for their equally thoughtful and smartly constructed mother-daughter dynamic.

Unfortunately, not all of We Grown Now is on the level of its stronger, more restrained moments. For every scene that plays out with a pleasing degree of natural ease, there are just as many overwrought, sometimes teeth-grindngly overwritten bits of flowery speechifying that feel dreadfully out of place and more at home in earnest Oscar-baiting crowd pleasers geared towards white affluent audiences than the types of characters being seen on screen. There are more than a few moments in We Grown Now that are on track to be great scenes, but are ruined by a character saying something that no average human being would say in such a situation. Sometimes the characters in We Grown Now are robbed of a natural voice and replaced by that of Baig wanting to stop the flow of events to give a speech. It’s a bad fit that makes the entirety of We Grown Now unbalanced.

But the bigger problem here is that Baig seems to be missing her own point. By the end of We Grown Now, which ends with a quote about how a community is defined by its people, Baig has seemingly tried to reframe what her film has been about the entire time with minimal success. While Baig shows moments that have a major impact on an entire community, the only real focus here is on a small handful of personal, insular relationships. This community that Baig wants to speak about is never really present for much of her narrative. So much effort has been put into re-creating Cabrini-Green that there seems to be little room left to show its people, almost like showing the projects is enough to stand in for the variety of voices, opinions, and struggles faced by those who live there. Lip service is paid to how these inner city projects in the North were largely a result of an influx of black people from the south, but Baig just lets that fact dangle and does nothing with it. It’s clear there are things Baig wants to talk about with We Grown Now, but the film is so focused on being visually artful and mainstream appealing that the actual depth is rather shallow.

We Grown Now isn’t a disingenuous film, but rather one that doesn’t work on every level that it wants to. There’s a decided amount of warmth in the relationships and a welcome amount of melancholy for the loss of an entire community, but most of that is in service of a movie in search of a greater message. It’s a great example of a project that needs more space to breathe and gestate to be a success. It’s almost worth it for the great performances and visual style, but there’s a lot of frustrating elements that keep We Grown Now from making a larger cultural and social impact.

We Grown Now opens at TIFF Lightbox in Toronto and Cineplex International Village in Vancouver on Friday, May 10, 2024. It opens on May 17 in Ottawa, June 8 in Saskatoon, and in additional Canadian cities throughout the spring and summer.

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